During WWI, men considered too afraid to enlist were given white feathers by those disapproving of their cowardice. Also common were boys too young to join up lying about their ages so they could experience the excitement of battle. Then there were the hundreds who were killed for desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy. These young men suffered from PTSD, an ailment not understood or acknowledged until well after the war was over.
A cast of nine tells the story of 16-year-old Harry Briggs, who cheerfully joins up to escape humdrum village life, and his sister Georgina’s search for the truth of what really happened to her kid brother out on the front. Whilst trying to clear his name, she discovers hidden secrets of her fellow Suffolk villagers, learning more than she bargained for. Spanning several decades and touching on a wide range of issues including homosexuality, shellshock, the class system and the reality of life in the trenches, The White Feather is an intimate, provincial musical with a sturdy first act and excellent music, that reflects the close-knit and often overbearing aspect of life in a small place during wartime. The second act, shorter but covering a much longer period of time, is rather choppy and introduces an interesting subplot but too late to for much development.
Abigail Matthews flawlessly leads as the kind but tenacious Georgina Briggs, supported by wonderfully mouthy best friend, Edith (Katie Brennan). It’s not all about the girls though; David Flynn as the conflicted lord of the manor Adam Davey is the most complex character of the lot and deserves more focus than the script gives him. Edward Brown, played by Zac Hamilton, has a couple of great scenes showcasing his emotional range. This is a great cast size for a musical: enough voices to give the larger numbers a punch, but not so large that some characters are relegated to the ensemble.
A piano, violin and cello trio give the music richness but an acoustic, rural tone that beautifully suits the world of the musical. The book and music are well integrated and transitions from one to the other are mostly smooth. The act finales could stand to be a bit longer, but otherwise the music feels developed, albeit quite gentle. The book follows an evenly paced narrative arc for the first half, but several jumps feel choppy and disruptive after the interval. The programme helps with indicating the time leaps, but more could be added to the script and design to clarify them so the audience doesn’t have to regularly refer to the programme. The Adam Davey subplot could do with more than a single, brief reference in the first half in order to have greater plot integration later, but this could potentially detract from the main thread of Georgina’s quest for justice. Though the title can represent Harry’s perceived cowardice, there is little mention of the feather as a convention of the time. All of the focus points are worthy of presentation and add to the overall story, but perhaps the show is trying to do too much. Without lengthening it quite a lot, some aspects of the plot will remain under-developed.
With an engrossing first act, detailed and complimentary characters, The White Feather writers clearly Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have a gift for telling great stories. New musicals often disappear after their initial run, but this one is a mostly polished affair that deserves more development and larger houses. In the Union Theatre, it’s an emotionally charged, intimate experience not to be missed, even with its shortcomings.
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